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History of the 3rd Century Church: Part 2

Oct 27, 2007

Origen's excommunication had nothing to do with the things he taught--and certainly not for his teaching on Universal Reconciliation. He was condemned as a schismatic for leaving Alexandria without the blessing of the domineering bishop and for accepting ordination at the hands of the bishops of Jerusalem and Caesarea though he was a self-made eunuch. Demetrius died shortly afterward.  The bishops who succeeded him ignored but did not formally reverse the order of excommunication. For this reason, it was used against Origin long after he had died in the great controversy that arose in the year 400.

Origen continued to teach and write in Palestine where he was greatly loved. But after just four years, in 235 A.D., a new round of persecution arose under Maximin, and Origen was forced to go into hiding, and eventually he fled to Athens. Maximin was a Gothic commander in the Roman army. He was said to be eight feet tall. He got the attention of the Emperor by running beside his horse for miles over rough terrain. Maximin never saw Rome itself, for he ruled from his military camp.

But Maximin apparently was reacting against the favor shown to the Christians under his predecessor, Alexander, whose Christian mother, as we said, had brought Origen to Antioch to teach the Word. According to Schaff,

"He [Alexander] placed the busts of Abraham and Christ in his domestic chapel with those of Orpheus, Apollonius of Tyana, and the better Roman emperors, and had the gospel rule, 'As ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them,' engraven on the walls of his palace and on public monuments." (History of the Christian Church, Vol. II, p. 59)

Origen thus lost his safe anonymity as his political enemies searched for him. But Maximin ruled only three years, and Origen continued to travel and teach.

The next emperor, Gordian, ruled from 238 to 244, and then Philip the Arabian came to the throne (244-249). The emperors were generally chosen by part of the army, which was made up of many nationalities from the empire. Philip was the first Christian Emperor, and his wife with him. However, the Catholic Church has been reluctant to identify him as a Christian, because he was not exactly the model of Christian charity before coming to the throne.

Philip was the son of a bandit-chief that had been promoted rapidly by Emperor Gordian until Philip induced the troops to kill the emperor and give him the throne. Eusebius speaks of him in Eccl. Hist., VI, xxxvi,

"He, there is reason to believe, was a Christian, and on the day of the last Easter vigil he wished to share in the prayers of the Church along with the people, but the prelate of the time [Babylas, bishop of Antioch] would not let him come in until he made open confession and attached himself to those who were held to be in a state of sin and were occupying the place for penitents. Otherwise, if he had not done so, he would never have been received by him in view of the many accusations brought against him. It is said that he obeyed gladly, showing by his actions the genuine piety of his attitude towards the fear of God."

More than a century later, Chrysostom, bishop of Constantinople, praised Babylas for his high standards in his sermon, De Sancto Babyla. So it is likely that this penance actually did take place. Though secular scholars always seem to assume that people never change, the record shows that Philip's character did change. Most likely he did not become a Christian until after he had become emperor of Rome.

Philip's successor was Decius (249-251), who reacted against Philip's favor toward Christians by instituting the worst persecution of the century. In that persecution, Origen was imprisoned and cruelly tortured for his faith. He never recovered from his injuries, but the prison guards allowed him to escape after Decius and his son were killed in battle in 251. Origen died two years later in the city of Tyre.

When Origen had first moved to Caesarea in 231 to get away from the oppression of Demetrius, bishop of Alexandria, two brothers from a rich family came to study under him. They were Gregory and his brother Athenodorus. Origen instilled in them the love of the Scriptures, and they later introduced Origen's teachings toward the shores of the Black Sea. Gregory later was made the bishop of Caesarea and was known as one of the most eminent bishops of the day. He was called Gregory Thaumaturgus, "Wonder Worker."

In the introduction to Gregory Thaumaturgus, we read in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI, p. 3,

"Alexandria continues to be the head of Christian learning . . . We have already observed the continuity of the great Alexandrian school; how it arose, and how Pantaenus begat Clement, and Clement begat Origen. So Origen begat Gregory, and so the Lord has provided for the spiritual generation of the Church teachers, age after age, from the beginning. Truly, the Lord gave to Origen a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters."

The author was speaking of spiritual seed, of course, for these men were not related physically. Origen, the eunuch, was given "a holy seed, better than natural sons and daughters." This is a reference to Isaiah 56:4, 5, which is the promise of God to eunuchs.

Origen was, without question, the dominant personality of the first half of the third century. He was loved, not feared, for his influence did not proceed from high position in the Church or by force, but he earned respect for his diligence, character, and scholarship, sealing all these with faith in the midst of torture.

Hosea Ballou, in his 1829 book, The Ancient History of Universalism, p. 147, says,

"Throughout the long period of nearly a century and a half . . . there is not an intimation found that Origen's Universalism gave any offence in the church, notwithstanding his writings, the meanwhile, underwent the severest scrutiny, and were frequently attacked on other points . . . Even the few who treated his name with indignity, uniformly passed, in silence, over the prominent tenet of Universal Salvation."

This is a remarkable statement, for it shows that Universal Reconciliation either was accepted universally or at least was a non-issue prior to the fifth century when it came under attack for reasons of Church politics. Origen had died in the city of Tyre, and Methodius, the bishop of that city, disagreed with Origen on a number of points--but not on Universal Reconciliation. Origen taught that the resurrection of the dead would not involve physical bodies, but spiritual only. Methodius disagreed (as I do as well). Origen taught that the witch of Endor had actually raised up Samuel himself (1 Sam. 28:15). Methodius disagreed.

The way Origen is castigated today for his position on Universal Reconciliation, one would think that he was an anomaly of church history. But as Ballou points out about Methodius' writings, "in all his search for errors, Universalism escaped without a censure" (p. 150). This was the case until the year 400. Ballou concludes on p. 166,

". . . that the doctrine of Universal Reconciliation was regarded in the church as neither heretical nor even unpopular; that the standard of orthodoxy, so far as it concerned that particular point, was then supposed to require only a belief in future punishment."

Future punishment was universally pictured as "fire," and there were differences in opinion as to the specific nature of this "fire." All seemed to believe that it was coercive to force men to believe and to give up their wicked ways. Most (if not all) never contemplated that punishment to be unending.


This is the second part of a series titled "History of the 3rd Century Church." To view all parts, click the link below.

History of the 3rd Century Church


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